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Where is China’s defence minister? Beijing refuses to comment on top official’s absence

China’s defence minister has been missing for a month but a ministry spokesperson said Thursday that he was “not aware of the situation” – its first public comment on the issue.

Senior Colonel Wu Qian, the director of the ministry’s information office, gave only a one-sentence response when asked at a monthly news conference whether Li Shangfu is under investigation for corruption and if he is still the defence minister.

In response to a question from a foreign news outlet, Wu said: “I’m not aware of the situation you mentioned.”

Li, who became defence minister when a new Cabinet was named in March, hasn’t been seen since giving a speech on August 29. He is the second senior official to disappear this year, following former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was removed from office in July.

The Chinese government has given no reason for his removal, or why both he and Li suddenly stopped making public appearances. There is no indication, at least so far, that their disappearances signal a change in China’s foreign or defence policies.

The disappearance of officials and other people without explanation isn’t uncommon in China and is often followed months later by the announcement of criminal charges against the person. The disappearance of two sitting ministers in rapid succession, though, is unusual.

The American ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, tweeted earlier this month that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Cabinet lineup “is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None.”

Wu, the defence ministry spokesperson, played down concerns expressed by US officials that the two countries don’t have clear military-to-military communications channels.

He said that the problem isn’t a lack of communication, but a need for the US to change its ways to get relations between the two militaries back on track.

He said: “The US always wants to tie somebody’s hands and feet, so they can do whatever they want.”

He also said that Taiwan is “heading down the path of its own destruction” with the self-governing island’s launch of its first domestically made submarine on Thursday.

Wu, who opened the news conference with an announcement about a global security conference to be held in Beijing next month, ducked a question about Li from another foreign media reporter, who asked whether the defence minister would attend the conference.

He said: “We will release information about the Beijing Xiangshan Forum in due course.”

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